Case Study 55: TaleSpin, Episode 46–“Flight School Confidential”

Original Airdate: January 10th, 1991 on first-run syndication

Hey, a crappy kids’ cartoon that I remember from my actual childhood! The concept of Baloo (Ed Gilbert) from The Jungle Book delivering airmail was introduced on Disney’s first syndicated cartoon, DuckTales. DuckTales was enough of a hit for Disney that it launched a whole stable of early 90s syndicated animated programming for the studio. In addition to TaleSpin, my fellow snake people will probably remember Darkwing Duck and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. DuckTales also triggered a boom in innovative afternoon cartoons, demonstrating to studios like Warners Brothers and Fox that there was money to be made in developing high-quality animated fare like The Animaniacs or Batman: The Animated Series. It also led to a lot of garbage. TaleSpin isn’t nearly that bad, but let’s just say revisiting it tarnished a few childhood memories.

Strengths

  • A strong, relatable premise. The hook of this episode’s plot is simple: Baloo’s 12 year old navigator and apprentice Kit (R.J. Williams, Wake, Rattle and Roll) feels like he’s ready to fly a plane after extensive experience riding shotgun, but everyone thinks he’s way too young. Who hasn’t been in a position where they’ve been told they’re not old enough to do something they feel confident they can handle? Ultimately, this episode is about the relationship between Kit and Baloo, but as you’ll see, we get distracted by a whole different pile of much less compelling bullshit. If they had focused on that core relationship—on Kit trying to convince Baloo, on Baloo addressing his fears over Kit’s independence, on Kit trying to win Baloo’s trust in spite of his naturally unhinged inclinations—it could have been a great story.

Weaknesses

  • Jingoistic bullshit. Hey, you know what this kids’ show about a sloth bear flying a cargo plane needs? Cold War geopolitics! Much of this episode takes place in Thembria, which is populated by a bunch of authoritarian warthogs with cheesy Russian accents. Thembria is characterized by incompetent militarism, tyrannical rulers and austere radish-centric cuisine. Was any of this necessary? It was 1991. The Wall came down, guys. You won. Maybe there was a fear that this state of affairs was tenuous and we still needed to indoctrinate our children with unthinking contempt for commies. I don’t know. As it stands, it makes a godawful mess out of the plot. We go from Kit chafing under Baloo’s authority to Kit chafing under the authority of a bunch of Thembrians we’ll never see again to him getting rescued by Baloo. So is he going to teach Kit to fly, then? No. “You’ll make a great pilot someday,” he says. Kit is mollified. So the moral here is do what Baloo says or you’ll fly your plane into a mountain and die a fiery death in a foreign country. GREAT STORY BRO
  • Kit. I wanted to relate to Kit so badly. But there’s a difference between being prevented from doing something you know how to do based on arbitrary ageism and being cocky and stupid. Every time the kid tries to fly a plane it ends in a disaster. In the opening scenes, he crashes Baloo’s plane into some rocks. He steals a plane from the Thembrians under the cover of darkness, never manages to close the landing gear and crashes it into a wall. In the grand finale he takes control of a plane yet again and nearly runs into a goddamned mountain. And I get that he’s rebelling against the authority of the adults and/or the Soviet government, but it would have made for a better story if he tried to work with that authority instead of against it, since he’s clearly not equipped to do the latter with any kind of competence or affability.

Final Judgment: 4/10. Mostly inoffensive and not actively stupid, TaleSpin clears a lot of the low bars set by the children’s programming previously discussed here, but it hardly rises to the level of anything I’d actually recommend. By the way, I never thought I’d compliment Angelina Ballerina, but at least their Russia stand-in isn’t straight out of a fucking propaganda poster.

NEXT TIME: I cover the British political sitcom The New Statesman!

Case Study 55: TaleSpin, Episode 46–“Flight School Confidential”

Case Study 48: Mickey Mouse, Episode 36–“A Flower For Minnie”

Original Airdate: May 29th, 2015 on Disney Channel

Periodically, you’ll see reports claiming that Kids These Days recognize Mario, Joe Camel, or Pikachu more frequently than they recognize Mickey Mouse. You can blame the rise of video games or a boom in tobacco advertising in the 1980s, but Mickey’s declining popularity over time is chained to Janet’s Law: you’re only as good as what you’ve done for us lately. Despite the fact that his face is plastered over 40 square miles of prime Florida swampland, Mickey hasn’t been holding down any television or film franchises of any notoriety. At best, today’s kids are familiar with him as a supporting player in the Kingdom Hearts games. Eventually, somebody at Disney must have caught on to this, because now we have a series of animated shorts starring America’s favorite everymouse darkening our door on a semi-regular basis.

Strengths

  • Animation & humor style that blends old and new. It’s easy for Mickey to tip its hat to retro styles, seeing as how the little rat’s been around for almost 100 fucking years. Regardless, the Mickey on offer here looks a lot more like Steamboat Willie than he did in my childhood. I understand the logic here—short-form cartoons originated as preludes to feature films and have often been an uncomfortable fit on a TV schedule. It’s why so many of the shows I review here find themselves desperately grappling to fill 22 minutes and it’s why the Huckleberry Hounds and Schnookums and Meats of the world divide their time between three distinct cartoons. But Mickey is very much a product of the 21st century. There are plenty of elegant modern touches to the animation—consider the Mickey’s-eye view of syrup drizzling over his breakfast pancakes—but the humor has also been updated for the jaded eye of post-millennial youth. There’s plenty of violence of the broken teeth and exes for eyes variety, and there’s even a sprinkling of gross-out humor—we get treated to a dog man’s protruding nipple, and a pig man’s hairy, misshapen ass is exposed, complete with a flatulent sound effect. Ain’t no way that shit was gonna fly in Fantasia. All this amounts to a cartoon just as much influenced by Ren & Stimpy and Spongebob Squarepants as it is by Silly Symphonies.
  • Rapid-fire. The other upside to having four minutes to work with instead of 22 is that the end result feels much more content-rich. The plot here is simple: Mickey (Chris Diamantopoulos, The Three Stooges) is trying to find the perfect flower for Minnie (Russi Taylor, The Simpsons.) In the course of trying to find that flower, he has eight separate misadventures in just under two minutes. Huckleberry had seven minutes and didn’t even get half as much content crammed in there. So the creators of Mickey are really trying here, and they’ve certainly got the spectacle down—there’s even a catchy song and a denouement featuring a full-scale parade and marching band. And yet…

Weaknesses

  • Not very funny. All that incident doesn’t get you very far when the end result is barely worth cracking a smile. Most of the jokes here consist of Mickey getting his ass kicked in various ways, and while that’s definitely a staple of cartoons going back decades, it’s not intrinsically funny in and of itself, or at least I never thought so. Haw haw haw! He’s been grievously injured! Now he has to go to the hospital! Or maybe he’ll die! Yeah, never did anything for me. And it’s one thing when you disguise full-body third-degree burns by making Daffy Duck all sooty, but as mentioned, today’s fast-paced climate demands that Mickey look approximately 60% more damaged. There is one funny moment, though. One of the flowers Mickey attempts to pick turns out to be from the bouquet on someone’s coffin. Mickey address the mourners thusly: “Uh…he was a good…man?” Diamantopoulos’ reading is gold, even if it’s a little macabre for first-graders.

Motivation: Mickey just wants to show his love for Minnie with a daisy. “She’s the flower blooming in my heart,” he sings. What a man!

Final Judgment: 6/10. If this blog has taught me anything, it’s that there’s oceans of shitty to mediocre children’s television out there, so in that respect Mickey’s ahead of the pack. But thanks to We Bare Bears, I believe we can do better.

NEXT TIME: I finally come for HBO. What’s that? Am I reviewing one of HBO’s many popular shows from this century? Nope—The Larry Sanders Show! Hey now.

Case Study 48: Mickey Mouse, Episode 36–“A Flower For Minnie”